A Narrative of Loss and Resilience: Review of Susan Abulhawa’s The Blue Between Sky and Water

The Blue Between Sky and Water, by Susan Abulhawa, published by Bloomsbury, 2015


Susan Abulhawa’s second novel The Blue Between Sky and Water (2015) traces the multi-generational journey of the Baraka family of Beit Daras from Palestine to America and back to Palestine over a period of more than sixty years. This is as much a journey of loss, relocation and separation, as it is of renewal, return and hope. The Blue Between Sky and Water, in being a follow-up of Abulhawa’s debut novel Mornings in Jenin (2010), tries to use family history to locate and preserve a sense of Palestinian cultural history that has been facing a constant threat of erasure since the beginning of Israeli colonisation.

The narrative begins in 1947 with the Baraka family residing in Beit Daras, a rural Palestinian village with their quaint lives and dreams. Eldest daughter Nazmiyeh looks after her widowed mother who can summon Sulayman, the djinn, while her elder brother Mamdouh tends to the village bees. Their younger sister, Mariam with her striking mismatched eyes, spends her days talking to her imaginary friend Khaled (who she informs Nazmiyeh is the latter’s grandson in a faraway bleak future) and learning to write from him. Their peaceful life is shattered when the Israeli forces descend on the village and set the family off on the long road to Gaza that will not only label them as refugees for life but will also ensure that the walk takes them from one displacement to another. Abulhawa’s description of the “Naqba” or the catastrophe that inaugurated the erasure of Palestine and the establishment of the new state of Israel is not only hard-hitting, but also chillingly bold in its baring of the extent of animalistic atrocity. Failing to make Nazmiyeh scream out in agony despite raping her ruthlessly, the Israeli soldiers fire a bullet through the head of six year old Mariam. The painful episode is a graphic description of the brutal reality of the Israeli occupation.

The Naqba familiarizes the Palestinians with the concept of statelessness, with what it means to be refugees. The Naqba brings forth the death of Nazmiyeh’s mother, the crippling of her brother and her desperate attempts to hold on to life with the help of the spirit of Mariam. However, the narrative does not merely chart loss or misfortunes; it shows the power of hope. The Blue Between Sky and Water is a story of resilience, of strong women and lost men. It takes us to the refugee camp of Gaza where the beekeeper’s widow dares to normalise life amidst the shrieking cries of pain and mourning of deaths. Her carefully cultivated vegetable garden, the aromas of her cooked food eventually inspire other women to rise above immobility and an eternal wait for ration or governmental help. Communal kitchens and underground ovens are made to prepare bread; laundry lines are put up to do the camp’s washings together; babies are born and weddings are planned – “In time, mud bricks and corrugated metal replaced the cloth tents and the refugee camps gave rise to a subculture marked by adamant pride, defiance, and an unwavering insistence on the dignity of home” (48). It is here that Nazmiyeh gives birth to twelve sons and one daughter Alwan; the camp is where Alwan gets married and Khaled is born to her thereby fulfilling Mariam’s prophecy.

“Hope is not a topic

It’s not a theory.

It’s a talent.” (171)

It is the hope that tomorrow will be better than today that gives the Palestinians the strength of resistance. The late 1970s and ’80s witnessed the rise of “Hamas”, an Islamist movement in Palestine that became “the principal institution of Palestinian resistance to Israel’s military occupation and ongoing repression of the native people’s aspirations for autonomy” (Abulhawa, The Blue Between ix), and gradually gained control of Gaza. Unable to dislodge Hamas, Israel sealed off the tiny strip of Gaza turning it into the largest open-air prison of the world which would make the Palestinians in Gaza go hungry, but not starve. Khaled bears witness to the time when Israel planned to defeat Gaza by isolating them from the world, symbolised by the disappearance of Kinder Eggs which became a luxury for the eight year old boy. He is also a silent witness to the resistance that defeats the plan. Palestinians dug underground tunnels to smuggle goods from Egypt. And every time the tunnels are bombarded, more are dug that are bigger, deeper and longer. December 27, 2008 saw Israel’s bombarding of Gaza, an assault that permanently transposes Khaled to a state of comatose existence from which he will never emerge. But Gaza turns around yet again, rising like phoenix from its ashes, simultaneously cleaning the dead for burial and making dinner for those alive.

 In Mamdouh’s migration to America, Abulhawa tries to chart the loneliness that emerges from exile. Losing his wife to death and his son first to a foreign culture and then to death, Mamdouh gives up everything to hold on to his granddaughter Nur Valdez and dreams of returning to Gaza. His dreams remain unfulfilled in death and Nur lives her life in a state of perpetual displacement. As she moves from one foster home to another, Nur’s hopes for a family are continually formed and dismantled. Sexually abused by her step-father, ridiculed by her friends for being a Muslim and hence an “other”, Nur’s search for family ends when she reunites with Nazmiyeh at Gaza. As she tries to treat Khaled as a psychotherapist, her mismatched eyes make her take the place of Mariam in Nazmiyeh’s eyes and the narrative comes full circle. As she conceives the child of a man who deserts her, Nazmiyeh’s arrangement ensures that in a culture where unwed motherhood is a sin, Nur and her child will be spoken of in reverence. This is where Palestine remains undefeated, in the everyday heroism of the women of Gaza amid relentless loss. Placed against the men – beloved husbands, exiled fathers, jailed sons – the sisters, mothers, wives and daughters provide a sustaining power that symbolically holds Palestine together. Nur triumphantly returns to Gaza defying her western past and leaving behind both the family’s trauma of exile and a deceptive lover. Moving away from western influence, she carries forward her native history and culture that had survived multiple attempts of erasure. Nazmiyeh having spent her life amidst death and loss refuses to bow down in front of any misfortune. Embodied in her is the undying spirit of a resilient race and culture which loves life and would rise every time it is crushed to formulate and adapt to newer ways of living.

-Deblina Hazra


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